Greek Police Arrest Five Asylum Seekers for Burning Down Europe's Largest Migrant Camp

Officials believe the fire was deliberately lit to protest a COVID-19 quarantine.
September 15, 2020, 4:53pm
The Moria refugee camp completely destroyed by fire​
The Moria refugee camp completely destroyed by fire. Photo: 

Greek police arrested five migrants Tuesday on suspicion of deliberately starting the fires last week that destroyed Moria, Europe’s largest migrant camp, leaving thousands of asylum seekers sleeping rough.

Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said police were still searching for another suspect over the blaze, which tore through the severely overcrowded camp on the Greek island of Lesbos a week ago, making its 12,000 inhabitants homeless.

READ: Thousands of asylum seekers homeless after Europe’s largest migrant camp burns to the ground

Citing local sources, Greece’s Ekathimerini newspaper reported the suspects were all Afghans, and two were unaccompanied minors – one of whom had been arrested in a camp in northern Greece, after being transferred there following the fires. Greek officials say they believe the fire was deliberately lit in protest after a quarantine was imposed in response to coronavirus cases in the camp.

In depriving 12,000 migrants of shelter and sanitation, the blaze has created a fresh humanitarian crisis on Lesbos, and reignited long-simmering tensions over the presence of asylum seekers on the island, a major hotspot for irregular immigration into Europe. Under EU migration policy, migrants are prevented from leaving the camps on Lesbos and other Greek islands until their asylum claims are processed, turning the islands into de facto holding pens for migration from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa into the rest of Europe.

READ: Violence is exploding in Europe's most notorious migrant camp

Since the camp was destroyed six days ago, the majority of its 12,000 residents – most of whom are Afghans – have been sleeping rough in the surrounding fields and roads.

While Greek officials have swiftly erected a tent camp on military land nearby, aid agencies say most of the asylum seekers are refusing to register in the new facility, fearing they will be stranded there if they enter. Only about 800 people have registered at the new camp, which Greek officials say has capacity for many times that number and should be able to house the entire migrant population within days.

“They fear this new camp will become the ‘new Moria’,” Martha Roussou, senior advocacy officer for International Rescue Committee Greece, told VICE News, referring to the notorious reputation of the destroyed camp.

Designed to accommodate just 2,800 people, Moria had about 12,000 residents at the time of the fires, and was infamous for its squalid, unhygienic and lawless conditions.

READ: Asylum seekers describe “gang-style violence” in Europe’s biggest migrant camp

Luciano Calestini, head of UNICEF’s Greece office, told VICE News that many migrants were reluctant to enter the new camp because they wanted to leave Lesbos, and feared “this will be another situation where there’s no pathway out”.

“There are crazy rumours circulating that there are ships coming from Germany to pick everyone up, and as long as they stay out they can jump on the boat,” he said. “This is a desperate, frustrated population and, human nature being what it is, many are clinging on to hope – but the reality is their best chance is to get to the camp. That’s infinitely a better option than remaining on the side of the road.”

Roussou said conditions for the migrants outside the new camp were “very, very difficult”, adding, “There’s no shelter, no sanitation. There’s protection and hygiene concerns, COVID-19 concerns – you can imagine 12,000 people with no toilets.”

READ: Deadly fire triggers riots at overcrowded Greek migrant camp

Marco Sandrone, a field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, said the construction of a new camp would do nothing to resolve the tensions over immigration on Lesbos, which were running high, with migrants desperate to leave the island and frustrated locals anxious for a solution.

“A new camp will do nothing to solve the structural issues that have caused chaos and suffering on the Greek islands for years. People need safe accommodation on the mainland and in other European countries,” he said in a statement.

“After moving 400 unaccompanied minors, the Greek government has made clear that no one else will leave the island. It is disappointing that their response is still more focused on restricting the movement of people rather than responding to people’s needs.”

The crisis on Lesbos has fuelled calls for a fresh solution from Europe to irregular immigration, following longstanding requests from Greece and Italy – frontline states for migration into Europe – for wealthy northern European “destination” countries to take on more of the burden.

Following a meeting with EU Council President Charles Michel in Athens Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said it was “time for Europe's support to pass from words into actions, to be expressed in tangible solidarity”.

Germany announced Tuesday that it would take in 1,500 migrants from Lesbos, in addition to a previous undertaking to take in 100 to 150 unaccompanied minors from the islands. But so far, beyond pledges from France and the Netherlands to also take in a number of unaccompanied minors, there have been no offers from other EU states to accept the migrants.

The EU is expected to outline a new approach to tackling immigration into the bloc later this month.